Refugees and Higher Education

Part I – An Introduction and Overview

Traditionally, there have been three paths to resolving long-term refugee situations: repatriation; settlement in counties of initial asylum; resettlement[i]. This paper focuses on the use of higher education[ii] to facilitate the latter two options[iii] while enhancing the benefits if refugees can and do repatriate. Education becomes the lynchpin to membership for refugees and addresses what is so agonizing and so intractable about the global migrant crisis: exclusion from membership in a society dedicated to their security.[iv]

Without a solution, millions are deprived of their human capacities and condemned to the margins of the international system. The United States, which used to be the leading nation providing resettlement opportunities, has slipped badly under the administration of Donald Trump.[v] Other states overtly subvert efforts of refugees to get a higher education; Hungary is a case in point.[vi] However, in others, access to higher education proves to be transformative[vii].

This series of five blogs reviews the current refugee situation in which the prospect of resettlement has declined precipitously,[viii] though this is one of many initiatives to widen the portal.[ix] Local integration has become more difficult; it has encountered even more obstacles than were already in place and, in most recent cases of refugee outflows, repatriation has seemed more unlikely even when conflicts have significantly subsided. Part II offers an overview of the current refugee situation.

Part III reviews the evolution of the university related to tackling social issues and the impact this has had on the nature and role of the university. In addressing the refugee problem. this situation is placed in the context of both the current global situation of refugees and the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 has had an impact on recently arrived refugees[x]; in Canada, some 7500 refugees with PR visas slated for resettlement were also left in limbo as their flights were cancelled or postponed.[xi] After reviewing the development of the idea of the university in the modern period, our interest zeroes in on the impact of COVID-19 on higher education in relationship to refugees overseas. Fortuitously, with all the horrors visited on society by the pandemic, the latter has had, as a byproduct, an important impact in the possibility of enormously expanding the role of institutions of higher learning in tackling the refugee crisis.

Part IV reviews the involvement to this date of universities and other organizations in efforts to alleviate the refugee situation through making higher education accessible. Though these efforts have been very marginal to the overall crisis, they have multiplied significantly in the last twenty years and point to a much broader, more frontal and more central role in resolving the crisis of protracted refugee situations, often called refugee warehousing when those refugees are held in refugee camps.

Part V draws on the discussion of local rather than overseas partners that will be a requisite to advancing such a program. These include other universities and community colleges (including student organizations), NGOs, businesses, philanthropic organizations, the federal and provincial levels of government, but also, and very significantly, municipal government.[xii] This section will offer the outline of a program for offering refugees advanced education in a more comprehensive and organized way tied to programs of resettlement and local integration.[xiii] It will also advance an organizational frame for linking these institutions to advance such a program.


What follows is a summary statement of the basic elements in initiating such a program.

  1. Higher Education offers a lynchpin to membership for refugees both in countries of first asylum and in countries of resettlement.
  2. Universities and colleges can make higher education accessible to refugees.
  3. There has already been significant expansion of efforts to bring higher education to refugees.
  4. Distance online learning allows university and college courses to be delivered directly to refugees in camps and in urban areas where they may have temporarily self-settled but without the legal security of membership in the state.
  5. Expansion of access to such programs from 1% of refugees worldwide to one-third should be the goal.
  6. Demand must be matched with opportunity.
  7. Integration in countries of first asylum can best be facilitated through the postsecondary student visa route.
  8. At the core of the proposal, a special class of refugees who enter Canada on student visas would be created.
  9. Subsequent to the completion of their studies, they would become eligible for landed status.
  10. This might be called the Privately Sponsored Student Visa (PSSV) class.
  11. This Canadian initiative would be expanded as a mission to the rest of the world.
  12. Universities would both select those students as well as incentivize young refugees.
  13. Canada, with partners, would run a distance education program at the post-secondary level for refugees.
  14. University student organizations would sponsor refugee students for student visas and facilitate resettlement.
  15. University student bodies would partner with civil society to sponsor the refugees.
  16. Key elements of private sponsorship would be:
  17. A dedicated government entry stream;
  18. Student organization of business-family sponsorships
  19. Role of businesses:
  20. Scholarships
  21. Jobs
  22. Training
  23. Networking
  24. Private sponsorships for housing and food.
  25. UNHCR has actively promoted the search for such new pathways to find new ways to bring refugees to safety as well as to rebuild public interest and consensus around the importance of protection.
  26. The Global Compact on Refugees endorsed by the UN General Assembly provides “a basis for predictable and equitable burden and responsibility-sharing” based on a firmer mechanism for that responsibility sharing.

The Consequences of Such a Program

  1. The program would accelerate the transition of universities and colleges from support roles in society into central actors in the emergence of a welcoming society, a knowledge and information-based society and one, more specifically, that can serve as a route for refugees to gain the security of membership in a state via their accomplishments in higher education.
  2. If Canada takes on the responsibility of distance higher education for 10% of refugee students seeking a higher education, or 150,000, if 20% of them enter Canada on student visas (30,000) each year, then students in the PSSV program would constitute about 5% initially of students in Canada on student visas.
  3. For every nine students educated overseas, one student would be brought to Canada.
  4. With the skills acquired, refugee youth would be in a much better position to enter the knowledge economy in their countries of asylum.

To be continued


[i] Adèle Garnier, Liliana Lyra Jubilut, and Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (eds.) (2018) Refugee Resettlement: Power, Politics and Humanitarian Governance.

[ii] For a study of the role of education at lower levels in Canada for refugees, cf. Ratković, S., Kovačević, D., Brewer, C. A., Ellis, C., Ahmed, N., & Baptiste-Brady, J. (2018). Supporting refugee students in Canada: Building on what we have learned in the past 20 years. Report to Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Brock University, St. Catherines, ON.

[iii] Cf. Jesuit Refugee Service/USA (2018) Protecting the Promise of a Generation: Education for Refugees and the Forcibly Displaced. The report calls for policymakers, donors, and other decision makers to prioritize education for refugees and displaced people. As the report argues, based on the Jesuit organization’s long experience with refugee education, “education can have transformational, life-saving impact.” This is also true at the tertiary level.

[iv] UNHCR (2019) Stepping Up: Refugee Education in Crisis. This report tells the stories of some of the world’s 7.1 million refugee children of school age under UNHCR’s mandate. In addition, it looks at the educational aspirations of refugee youth eager to continue learning after secondary education. It also highlights the need for strong partnerships in order to break down the barriers to education for millions of refugee children.

[v] Until the advent of the Trump administration in 2017, the U.S. was a leading country in resettlement, even though the US refugee program served US interests and values. Cf. Kerwin, Donald (2018) The US Refugee Resettlement Program – A Return to First Principles: How Refugees Help to Define, Strengthen, and Revitalize the United States. Report. Center for Migration Studies. The report outlines the achievements, contributions and integration of 1.1 million refugees who arrived in the United States between 1987 and 2016 and asserts that the US refugee resettlement program should be a source of immense national pride because it has saved countless lives, put millions of impoverished persons on a path to work, self-sufficiency, and integration, and advanced US standing in the world.


[vii] Bailey, Lucy and Gül İnanç (2018) Access to Higher Education: Refugees’ Stories from Malaysia. Baton Rouge, Florida: CRC Press. This book contains stories from a small group of successful refugees who have managed to receive higher education in a context where their existence is not recognized and where most refugees lack access to even basic education. Until 2015, no refugees in Malaysia were able to access higher education, and they were unable to attend government schooling. Since then, six private higher education institutions have agreed to open their doors to refugees for the first time. This book identifies the factors that aided these refugees. It charts the challenges that they and their communities have faced. The stories are framed by a discussion of the situation that refugees face in accessing education globally

[viii] There were 20.4 million refugees of concern to UNHCR around the world at the end of 2019, but less than one per cent of refugees are resettled each year. The resettlement spots offered by countries in 2018 were less than half the level in 2016. Only a small number of states take part in UNHCR’s resettlement program – U.S., Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia and the Nordic countries. Resettlement states provide the refugee with legal and physical protection, including access to civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights similar to those enjoyed by nationals. During the Global Refugee Forum that took place in Geneva, 16-18 December 2019, EU member states made pledges for resettlement efforts in 2020, backed with financial support from the European Commission. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) hosting the event estimated the global resettlement needs at 1.44 million. A delegation of MEPs called for more ambitious resettlement efforts.

[ix] Clair Higgins (2019)Policy Brief: Safe Journeys and Sound Policy: Expanding protected entry for refugees,”, Kaldor center for international refugee law.,

[x] As examples of such recent foci see the following 2020 studies: Hojati, Z. (2020) “Post-Covid 19: The Need to Revisit Canada’s Work Regulation Toward Professional Immigrants;” Yael Schacher & Rachel Schmidtke (2020) “Harmful Returns: The Compounded Vulnerabilities of Returned Guatemalans in the Time of COVID-19”; Yvonne Su, Yuriko Cowper-Smith & Tyler Valiquettem (2020) “LGBTQI+ Populations Face Unique Challenges During Pandemic.”

[xi] hne-bramham-covid-19-challenges-refugees-and-those-helping-them-to-settle/

[xii] The synergy among business organization, municipalities and refugee support organization was confirmed in a Dutch study. Ruben Munsterman (2019) Amsterdam’s Hire-a-Refugee Program Takes On Tight Labor Market,”

[xiii] Such a program can play a critical role itself in integration. Cf. Jay Marlowe  (2018) Belonging and Transnational Refugee Settlement: Unsettling the Everyday and the Extraordinary,


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